Pagenaud, who won the race from pole two years ago, will roll off from 26th, the middle of the ninth row on Sunday, yet is only three rows away from the fastest Penske-Chevrolet. But he says he has as good a race setup as he had when he conquered the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Disappointed in qualifying speed; not there, we’re still trying to understand why that is,” he said, “but we turned the car over to the race package, and she’s a beauty!
“I feel just as confident as I was in ’19, but I’m not starting on pole so I’m going to have to do it in a different way. Hopefully we can come back.
“We were so extremely happy with the chassis, whether it was qualifying or race pace… We just have to find our way forward.
“It’s a different aero package [than in ’19] so the drafting is very different. If I find myself in the same position [as then] on the last lap, I probably won’t be able to hold the lead, for example because the suction is very strong for second place. Third place car gets quite affected so it’s very difficult to get a run on second place.
“So there’s a lot of thinking about how you tackle the last 50 laps. First of all, it’s a different story for us now: we have to crack the Top 10 in the first 100 laps and find our way forward. But obviously as you progress through the field, you’re up against stronger cars, so it starts becoming more and more difficult.
“I have the best pitcrew in pitlane – we’ve had the fastest stops since Barber [IndyCar’s season-opener] – so that gives me a lot of hope. And strategy? There’s no strategy. We’re just going to have to go.”
Pagenaud has chosen the first spot in pitlane and admitted that it’s tough coming off Turn 4, getting down to the pitlane speed limit and then immediately slotting into his pitbox in a precise manner.
“It’s challenging, yes. First time I stopped there, I stopped way too short,” he grinned. “My brain didn’t have time to adjust to the pitspeed limit… It’s so funny, when you travel at so high speed, your eyes and your brain slow everything down, and then you get to 60mph and it feels like you’re a turtle! Your depth perception changes because of the speed, and when you’re far down pitlane, you have more time to process it.
“I’m more concerned about my 60[mph] to zero than I am concerned about slowing down to 60. My braking point shouldn’t change because of the pitbox.”
Pagenaud, who since joining Penske in 2015 has more often than not found the best raceday setup of the team’s drivers, said the lower temperatures “will allow you to play the game on downforce, which is really good for racing.”
He went on: “Some people will think about maybe having less downforce for speed, and some people with think about having more for passing. And it’s going to depend on the chassis strength that you have. We feel very strong about our chassis, so maybe we can run less downforce. It’s probably a gamble I will take because we have to go forward. So that might be a good thing for us.”
Pagenaud concluded, “If it’s colder, you’re going to have a fun race to watch.”